What's a Doc, Doc?


When Bowling for Columbine was up for a Best Documentary Oscar, there was much grumbling in conservative quarters that it shouldn't be eligible—not because it's a crappy movie, but because it isn't "really" a documentary. With Michael Moore's followup, Fahrenheit 9/11, the complaints have grown louder: This isn't a documentary, we're told, because it doesn't try to be objective and because it says things that aren't true.

I was going to wait for next year's Oscars and the inevitable resurgence of that argument before I wrote a piece pointing out that the complaint only makes sense if you ignore the entire history of documentary films. (Look at what was up for the Documentary Oscar 60 years before Columbine won: It's a bunch of military propaganda movies, one of which stars Donald Duck.) I shouldn't have waited: Louis Menand has just written that article for The New Yorker, drawing heavily on Eric Barnouw's excellent book Documentary. Menand points out that the notion of the documentary as an objective record didn't really exist before the cinema vérité and Direct Cinema movements of the '60s—and that the wisest members of those movements understood that, whatever else they might be doing, they weren't making movies without a slant. Menand loves Fahrenheit 9/11, but you don't have to agree with him about that to accept the larger point: If this isn't a documentary, than neither are the acknowledged classics of the genre.

Oh, well. Guess I'll have to write about something else that week

NEXT: This Is Burning Man!

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  1. I’ll be happy when the notion of objectivity is tossed out all together. Even Cinema Verite always had a point of view: Remember Frederick Wiseman’s “High School” — no narration, no set-ups, but it’s filled with outrage and pity. It’s not even necessary for documentaries to be fair, just not dishonest. (Moore often fails this last test, alas.)

  2. Menand makes that point about Wiseman in the New Yorker piece. Interestingly, I think Wiseman himself would agree with you: He has described his films as “reality fictions.”

    I don’t agree that a movie has to be honest to be a documentary, though. A documentary can be dishonest, just as a thriller can be dull and the leads in a romance can lack chemistry. My favorite documentary, Orson Welles’ F for Fake, is (among other things) a meditation on its own deceptions.

  3. Barnouw’s book is very good, and Menand is making the right point here. It’s one I have been finding myself having to make a lot these days. Look at the classic docs from the early 20th century, like Nannook of the North or Grass or many others, and you see all kinds of staged and re-enacted footage.

  4. From

    Documentary: A work, such as a film or television program, presenting political, social, or historical subject matter in a factual and informative manner and often consisting of actual news films or interviews accompanied by narration.

    We don’t have to accept this definition, but I always assumed that attempting to be factual was a neccesary part of being a documentary. Otherwise, what’s to distinguish it from fiction?

  5. You beat me to it Todd Fletcher! Except that I’d say the point of a dictionary definition, a good one anyway, is to reflect how most literate people of a language are using (and therefore understanding) the word. Thus, if propaganda films have been considered documentaries in the past, there exists the possibility that either they were considered factual at the time or perhaps the definition has changed since then. Regardless, if the defintion cited accurately reflects how most people understand the word (and says pretty much the same thing), then to call F-9/11 a documentary would seem to be making claims about its attempted objectivity that are of course laughable. And while I might agree up to a point with the Bob Basils (and Kevin Carsons and maybe even Jesse Walkers) of the world that perhaps objectivity as such is a tad overrated and impossible in its ideal and perfect form, I disagree that it’s a useless concept altogether. Hell, we’ve got the word in our language for a reason! It DOES mean something!

    I thinked my girlfriend summed up the F-9/11 as doc issue best when she said it should be viewed as satire. (And she liked it!)

  6. Jesse,

    Your example of F is for Fake seems to contradict your espoused use of it. I haven’t seen it but looked it up on the All Movie Guide site, and they specifically say it’s pretty much not a documentary! And considering the title, I would say it is indeed honest, even if that honesty consists of showing how dishonest film can be. Sounds to me like it’s a veritable parody of documentaries. (Sounds pretty cool, too!)

  7. “Fahrenheit 9/11” doesn’t qualify as a documentary under either the dictionary definition or under the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ rules.

    What more is there to discuss?

    This is all a moot point. Unless someone finds a line in the Academy rules explicitly stating “Michael Moore is not allowed to win this award”, he’s going to get nominated, and he’s going to win. Popularity is what matters, and Moore is enormously popular among the members of the Academy.

  8. Menand is mostly correct about the history of the documentary form, but one wonders if he would have been so quick to defend a documentary film with a different political perspective (of course, there are very few docs that take a non-left political position).

  9. Fyodor: While I disagree with the AMG review, perhaps it would be better to say that F for Fake exists on the boundary between a documentary and a mockumentary, and forces us to think about just where that line is. It’s certainly a more extreme case than F 9/11.

  10. Todd: There’s a reason why books like Stupid White Men, Treason, and even Chariots of the Gods are shelved in the nonfiction aisles of the library, even though they’re factually deficient. A similar principle is at work here.

  11. Jesse,
    So you’re saying that while these aren’t exactly factual works, they are certainly not outright fiction? So they are documentaries in intent, rather than by method?

  12. Dan,
    According to this article in Variety, we may not need the “No Michael Moore” rule.

    For the first (and hopefully last time), thank you Fidel. 🙂

  13. Mo: I’m afraid that article’s already out of date.

    Todd: It’s a matter of framing, style, and intent. A frankly fictional book or film that apes the form of a work of nonfiction (cf. Philip Jose Farmer’s “biography” of Tarzan, Tarzan Alive, or a movie like Best in Show) would still be classified as fiction. But a book or film that presents itself as an effort to tell the truth is usually classified as nonfiction or a documentary, even if it errs or lies (cf. Treason or Bowling for Columbine — or Triumph of the Will).

    I agree that there is a gray area. Earlier I said that F for Fake is my favorite documentary. On reflection, there are actually three movies that might be candidates for that honor; the other two are Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda. All three are hard to classify definitively as documentaries, but none are ordinary fictions either.

  14. I guess I might have to go see Moore’s new movie. 🙂

  15. Jesse,
    Interesting, that makes sense. I’m very familiar with Sans Soleil and have wondered about how it could be classified. I decided on documentary also. So we might consider Slacker to be on the fiction side of the gray area.

  16. It’s sort of in the same category as “suppuse”, I suppose.

    Good point. My comment was only conditionally a spelling flame. I could easily hear GWB saying “emenies” in my head. Jumpin’ Jiminy!

    (still the wise fool, at heart)

  17. If anything is “Orwellian,” Matthew, it’s throwing out the historical definition of documentary in favor of this must-be-true, must-be-objective nonsense that would exclude everything from Nanook of the North to Michael Moore Hates America.

    Also: While I don’t have any interest in sticking up for Menand’s political views, Vertov really was a great filmmaker, even though he was a Soviet propagandist. The Man With a Movie Camera is a fantastic movie.

  18. There’s a reason why books like Stupid White Men, Treason, and even Chariots of the Gods are shelved in the nonfiction aisles of the library, even though they’re factually deficient.

    Even libraries divide their non-fiction into categories. One could put Chariots in Mythology, Religion or Sociology. As for bookstores, the same shop may put Moore in Politics or Current Events, while P.J. O’Rourke, also writing about politics, gets placed in Humor, where his books can wave at Dave Barry’s. That’s assuming that the manga and Worst Case Survival Guides don’t block the view. Why is that? Because the buyer thinks they will sell better when so placed. Similarly, if Moore had no reputation, and no box office track record as a documentarian, you can be sure that his film would be marketed as anything but a documentary, because of the old Hollywood shibboleth that those things don’t sell tickets.

    (former bookseller)

  19. Perhaps a newspaper is a better comparison than library shelving. Documentaries span the range from news stories to op-ed pieces.

    Menard would have done well to include the generation+ of video art, documentary, and activism in his account.

  20. Clicked on the link, Dan. Why do you say F911 is ineligible?

    The rules state that a qualifying documentary must have an “emphasis is on fact and not on fiction”.

    Since the purpose of Fahrenheit 9/11 is to convey “a pretense that does not represent actuality but has been invented”, it is a work of fiction, and thus not a qualified documentary.

  21. Documentaries “document” their chosen subject matter. They often use documents – photo albums, press releases, video clips – to present an argument or tell a story. Go to the root. To document is (by the dictionary on my computer) to prove by or provide with documents or evidence. Fahrenheit 9/11 does that. Most of the quibbling with dictionary definitions in this commentary section are silly.

  22. Fiction is a product of the imagination.

    From one point of view, all human perception is fiction, since the data our brains collect are collated and rendered usable in part by our imaginations. (This explains UFO sightings and the abortion debate.)

    Objectivity is a myth.

    As I sit here pondering objectivity, my eye wanders. Within my field of vision is a bottle of soy sauce. “There is a bottle of soy sauce.”

    Is that an objective statement? Why didn’t I mention the big steamer pot directly to the left of the sauce? Or the sink full of dirty dishes? Or all the cook books? Or the microwave which is behind me?

    Because I chose. Free will and my limited senses mean I can never not give my “point of view”.

    As long as documentaries are made by humans (or by machines programmed by humans), what they present will be the fruit of subjective choices.

    Here’s an example of a factual news item seen and heard (about 5 minutes ago) on British tv:

    At a signing ceremony for a defense-spending bill before Pentagon chiefs:

    “Our emenies are innovative and resourcesful. And so are we.

    “They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people. And neither do we.” (George W. Bush)

    Was this news segment factual? From what I can tell, yes. Was it objective?

    Is what George W. Bush said “true”? (Yes.)

    Is my posting it here objective?

    I haven’t yet seen F911. But I doubt there’s anything in it as damning as Bush’s revelatory statement.

  23. First of all, ….Mmmmmmmmmmm…soy sauce!

    Second, Our emenies – did you mistype, or is that today’s Bushism?

    Third, I suppuse one could explain “There is a bottle of soy sauce” as shorthand for “My mind thinks it is receiving information from my body’s eyes consistent with the pattern of light that occurs when they are trained on what other sensory evidence has convinced me on previous occasions that I either remember specifically or have incorporated into my own personal Baedeker of the universe as a bottle of soy sauce,” but that would be a little time-consuming, don’t you think?

    We could always do the college sophomore “if you were a brain in a pan getting artificial sense data input into your brain that described the universe just as you are experiencing it now, how could you tell the difference, and would it matter” bit, but I’ve already stayed up too late, and I haven’t been drinking or otherwise partaking in intoxicants.


  24. Our emenies… – did you mistype, or is that today’s Bushism?

    It’s sort of in the same category as “suppuse”, I suppose.

    And don’t knock college sophomores. (Or high school ones, for that matter.) Their questions are the basic ones. Why, look at the discussions here about, say, abortion. Or freedom.


    a blastocyst abroad

  25. Jesse, “Fahrenheit 911” is a documentary in the same sense that Pravda (which is Russian for “truth”) was a newspaper in the Soviet Union. That is to say, they both pretended to be non-fiction while serving up a cleverly edited brew of facts, half-facts, and outright lies.

    George Orwell was very concerned about the abuse of language, either out of intellectual laziness or out of a conscious attempt to lull and deceive the unsuspecting audience. Louis Menand’s desire to rewrite the definition of “documentary” is Orwellian, not to mention his glorification of Soviet propaganda as speaking “truth to power”.

    Now can you please explain to me how my pointing that out is Orwellian on my part? And do you really think “Nanook of the North” is a documentary?

  26. Menand is not rewriting the definition of documentary, Matthew. That’s the point. He’s reminding readers of the historical meaning of the term — the same meaning used in the Barnouw book, which is probably the most respected history of the form.

    As for Pravda, I think that supports my point. It was a newspaper, even though much of its “news” was false. Similarly, Bowling for Columbine is a biased, deceptive polemic. But it’s still a documentary.

    And yes, Nanook of the North is a documentary too. A definition of “documentary” that excludes Nanook of the North is kind of like a definition of “horror movie” that excludes Frankenstein.

  27. ‘Jesse, “Fahrenheit 911” is a documentary in the same sense that Pravda (which is Russian for “truth”) was a newspaper in the Soviet Union. That is to say, they both pretended to be non-fiction while serving up a cleverly edited brew of facts, half-facts, and outright lies.’

    Documentaries have always been such. As have newspapers.

  28. Academy rules disqualify films that have been was just shown on Cuban shown on television. Moore apparently thinks that is just fine. Therefore, he’s out of the nominee pool.

    Except, that they will bend the rules for him. To be fair, I doubt that Castro would have held off airing it, no matter what the director or studio wanted.

    Did anyone notice that they expect West Coast critics to drive all over L.A. County to screenings, but the East Coast showing is restricted to Manhattan? You can’t qualify by putting your film in a Brooklyn or Bronx theatre. Are there no Academy voters who can stand transferring to the BMT?


  29. That should have started:

    “Academy rules disqualify films that have been shown on TV. F911 was just shown on Cuban TV.”


  30. I heard that if the documentary angle doesn’t work then they can simply submit the film for “Best Picture”. That category carries much more weight (as far as moronic award shows go), in my opinion, then “Best Documetary”. These complaining conservatives are idiots.

    I agree with the opinion that however this turns out, Moore will definitely be in the seat of honor during the Oscars, win Best Something, and the audience will collapse in a collective orgasm as Moore jerks off on stage.

  31. Speaking as a library professional… the reason why such things are catalogued as nonfiction relate to two factors, time and bias.

    Time, because we don’t have the manpower to devote to factchecking every book to see if (for example) Arming America should actually be under Fiction or not. Our cataloguers can handle 200+ items a week; streamlining the decision process as to where to classify them (and how to describe them via subject headings) is very important to making the job a practical one.

    Bias, because in the absence of such time, a cataloguer’s bias (whether by conscious decision or subconscious bias based on the limited information available to any one person) would interfere in the placement of works within the catalog…. and, in any library with enough size to have multiple people classifying the books, would result in having books on the same subject scattered hither and yon depending on who catalogued them. Better to be consistent, even if that means giving authors benefits of the doubt that they don’t truly merit.

    The Academy, though, has a small enough sample and enough time to work with in order to more thoroughly vet candidates, as it only has to vet those likely to be nominated.

    On the issue of F9/11, one expects documentaries to have a slant; however, if any documentary has actively falsified footage without a concurrent disclaimer (for example, if the newspaper headline allegation bears out; or the fake subtitles on the Horton ad in Columbine), it should be inelegible, just as a reporter should be able to win a pulitzer for stories in which she has an opinion, but not for one in which elements of the story, however small, were deliberately falsified without alerting the reader.

    I’ll also note that Chariots of the Gods is an appallingly poor example; it typically is held under 001.9 (controversial knowledge), not under the archaeology or history numbers it would be if it were taken as seriously as Jesse implies.

  32. When did I say Chariots was being taken seriously? I was speaking of broad categories. Go to the documentary section of a large video store and you’ll see silly UFO expos?s cheek by jowl with the films of Errol Morris. (Unless you’re at Blockbuster, in which case the section is called “special interest” and it also includes exercise videos.)

    Just because a book is called “nonfiction” doesn’t mean it’s being taken seriously. Same thing goes for films called “documentary.”

    As far as vetting goes: Libraries will continue to stock Arming America in the nonfiction shelves even now that almost everyone acknowledges that it’s inaccurate. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense to stick it with the novels. And it’s not your job to provide warning labels for bad books.

    The same logic applies to categorizing films. Criticism and categorization are linked, but they’re not the same thing.

  33. Clicked on the link, Dan. Why do you say F911 is ineligible?

  34. Well said, Craig. These slippery slope arguments are intellectually dishonest nonsense. Yes, it may be impossible for any film to attain absolute objectivity, but in order to be considered a true documentary, a film must at least attempt to do so. No one but an ignorant, guilty liberal denies that Moore deliberately distorts and deceives in his films. Apparently, the Academy’s standards have been poor in the past; shouldn’t it try to improve them? Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath.

  35. I think the following quote from Louis Menand’s article is very revealing of why he is so willing to defend the Orwellian use of the term “documentary” to describe the films “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 911”:

    “Those movies [John Grierson’s documentaries] don?t represent the purest progressivism in the documentary tradition, though. That distinction belongs to the brilliant Soviet documentaries of Dziga Vertov?movies with titles like ?Stride, Soviet!,? ?One Sixth of the World,? and ?Three Songs of Lenin.?
    The toxic antibody in the [documentary] tradition, of course, is Leni Riefenstahl, who died last year, at the age of a hundred and one. ?Triumph of the Will,? filmed at the 1934 Nazi Party rally, was released in 1935. In most respects, it represents a complete inversion of what the documentary since Flaherty had been all about. It doesn?t try to speak truth to power; it tries to speak the truth of power.”

    Okay… so let’s see here: Soviet propaganda = good, Nazi propaganda = bad. Oh, no, no, no! my mistake: Soviet propaganda = “the purest progressivism in the documentary tradition” and “brilliant”; Nazi propaganda = “a complete inversion” of documentary standards.

    And why is that? Silly question, isn’t it obvious: Nazis speak the “truth of power”, while soviets speak “truth to power”!

    Double-plus good truth-telling, Comrade Menand. You and Comrade Moore should work together on a documentary sometime.

    And Jesse Walker could write a keen, critical review of it for Reason, the journal of progressive, oops — I mean libertarian — thought.

  36. A good documentary can be objective and a good documentary can show a bias towards a point of view, but when the filmmaker deliberately misrespresents the facts or makes up his own facts then his documentary cannot be considered good and deserving of an award.

  37. Jesse, you say that:

    “Menand is not rewriting the definition of documentary, Matthew. That’s the point. He’s reminding readers of the historical meaning of the term”

    Menand is actually not reminding us of the historical meaning of ?documentary?. He is reminding us of one, particular historical meaning. For example, the word ?documentaire? in French originally referred to any non-fiction film, such as travelogues and instructional videos (see the entry for ?documentary film? in Wikipedia, at

    And he actually is trying to rewrite the definition of documentary. I?ve looked up the word in over a dozen dictionaries, and they all showed a remarkable unanimity. They all state the need for documentaries to be real, authentic, informative, true-to-life, and not fictionalized.

    My Webster?s New World Dictionary, for instance, which was published in 1980, defines a doumentary as a ?motion picture, television program, etc. that dramatically shows or analyzes news events, social conditions, etc., with little or no fictionalization?.

    So when Menand says a film with heavy fictionalization, such as Fahrenheit 911, is well within the documentary tradition, and should therefore be considered a documentary, he is contradicting the current, common, established definition of documentary.

    When Nanook of the North first came out, many, if not most people considered it a documentary. But that was because Flaherty’s creative techniques were not common knowledge at the time, and because, as you and Menand point out, the standards for documentaries were different back then. The Wikipedia entry for “documentary film” has a good summary of the situation:

    “With Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North in 1922, documentary film embraced romanticism; Flaherty went on to film a number of heavily staged romantic films, usually showing how his subjects would have lived 100 years earlier and not how they lived right then (for instance, in Nanook of the North Flaherty does not allow his subjects to shoot a walrus with a nearby shotgun, but has them use a harpoon instead, putting themselves in considerable danger).

    “Some of Flaherty’s staging, such as building a roofless igloo for interior shots, was done to accommodate the filming technology of the time. In later years, attempts to steer the action in this way, without informing the audience, have come to be considered both unethical and contradictory to the nature of documentary film”

    My point here is that, yes, “documentary” today does not mean “documentary” in 1920 or even “documentary” in 1960. But what it means in 2004 does not include material fictionalization and lying. There has been an evolution of meaning and standards over the past 100 years or so, and categorizing fraudulent film-making as “documentary” would be a considerable and undesirable retreat in the standards.

    And about Pravda: it was not a newspaper! It was the propaganda organ of a totalitarian regime.

    To summarize:
    Nanook of the North, not a documentary, but a documentary-style dramatization.
    Fahrenheit 911, not a documentary, but a documentary-style fictionalized polemic.
    Pravda, not a newspaper, but a totalitarian organ of propaganda and disinformation.

    I was tempted to take your admission that Fahrenheit 911 is a documentary in the same sense that Pravda was a newspaper as documentary proof that I had won this discussion. But I don’t think Michael Moore would ever agree to that proposition in public. He is basically using your forgiving definition of documentary to call his own films documentaries. However, when the news media ask him about fictionalizion in his alleged documentaries, he always insists they are truthful and accurate in both vision and details.

  38. Look, Matthew, I really don’t care what the dictionaries say, unless they’re written by serious, competent film critics or film historians. That said, even the Webster’s definition you quoted allows “little” fictionalization — and it’s not at all clear what “fictionalization” means in that context, anyway. (They’re much more likely to be thinking of docudrama-style reenactments than of the less obvious liberties Michael Moore takes.)

    The popular understanding of the word “documentary” has changed in many ways, as Menand himself notes, but the old meanings certainly haven’t been erased. Go to the documentary section of any decent-sized video store, and look at all the goofball UFO and conspiracy tapes you’ll find there. They were filed and shelved by modern people living in the year 2004, even though they are not “real, authentic, informative, true-to-life, and not fictionalized.”

    So it’s not just critics, historians, documentarians, film festival programmers, and so on who are with me on this. It’s the average Middle American video store clerk. (Who will also agree, if he has any sense, that there is no contradiction between being a newspaper and being a propaganda organ.)

    I think this discussion has reached the point of diminishing returns.

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